Sybille Bedford
Quicksands: A Memoir.
Counterpoint, 224 pages, $24.95

“Yes, I hung on,” says Sybille Bedford early in this memoir. And so she has. In her mid-nineties now, she sees herself as a survivor, an “escapee”—to use her own term—someone who fits in nowhere and therefore anywhere. Hers has been a cosmopolitan life with elective affinities instead of roots, and in defiance of the demotic age, its dangers, and impoverishments. Her memories and evocations are too rich to be compressed by anything so mundane as chronology or narrative, but the fragments, as she insists on calling them, nevertheless form a whole. To read this fascinating book is like wandering from one brilliantly illuminated patch to another in an otherwise misty landscape.

In keeping with the reticence of her generation, perhaps, she withholds what others might consider essential, for instance the name and title of her aristocratic German father, and therefore her own maiden name, as well as the names of her mother and grandparents. A Baroness von N. looms up, a D, an X. Who are they, quite, and why so long after the event do they have to travel incognito? Under Kaiser Wilhelm, it is true, society was a cauldron of sad secrets, of scandals, unsuitable marriage with Jews, affairs that ended in murder and suicide, as depicted in A Legacy, Sybille Bedford’s great and lasting novel. But the poor tragic human breed, as she puts it, has experienced far worse horrors during her long life.

Her nameless father, she says in a portrait full of a regretful unrequited love, was not a man of the twentieth century. Aesthete, collector of high art, shy, stern, he appeared to the young Sybille, otherwise Billi, to have grown an uncrackable shell around himself. One rare remembered human touch is that he raised his hat to the donkey kept with other animals in the park of his schloss in the Grand Duchy of Baden. Sybille’s careless and heart-free mother had had an affair with someone described as the Danish Maupassant—and who might that be … ? Soon she ran away from her marriage. And Sybille ran away too, to her half-sister Maximiliana Henrietta, otherwise Jacko. When her father then suddenly died, as inconsequentially as he had lived, Sybille was at the mercy of her mother, a beauty incapable of distinguishing between romance and ruin. Eloping with Alessandro (again no surname), she flitted from one place to another before reaching Sanary, then an unspoilt fishing village in the south of France.

Sybille had to keep up, with nobody except herself on whom to rely. She had always wanted to write, to make sense of her father’s remoteness and of her mother’s fecklessness and egotism. Mademoiselle, governesses, Ursuline nuns, the village school, were little or no help. Her untutored handwriting remains illegible. Today she can quote Racine or Dryden appropriately, or recite Rimbaud, only because she has taught herself. Cooking is one unexpected bent of hers, fast cars another.

At Sanary, her mother was eventually to become a morphine addict, dying in misery. But also living there were Aldous Huxley, and his wife Maria. Sybille Bedford has written what must remain the definitive biography of Huxley, but here she gives a charming portrait of this famous couple whom she sees as essentially a force for good. The Huxleys took it for granted that she would become a writer, they encouraged her, and showed her literary life at its fullest, with friends and picnics, bright red sports cars, and a deserved fame.

Trustees and guardians in the background never quite let her down, but there was financial uncertainty nonetheless. The Nazis had come to power, and when she published an article against them, they took revenge by sequestrating what she should have inherited from her father. Her German passport was then a liability pregnant with menace. “We must get one of our bugger friends to marry Sybille,” was Maria Huxley’s response. A lawyer was helpful, but inexplicably he is given the pseudonym of Lysander. Together, they supervised a process whereby Terry (surname presumably Bedford, and actually not a Bloomsbury bugger) agreed to a mariage blanc, leading to the life-saving British passport and finalizing a career in the English language rather than German. Present at the wedding ceremony, Virginia Woolf said with less than her usual insight, “This is a very queer party, I can’t understand anything about it.”

People with walk-on parts at Sanary include German writers in exile from Nazism such as Thomas Mann and his children, and Lion Feuchtwanger, and what Sybille Bedford calls “English naughty boys,” notably Brian Howard whose social and sexual flamboyance captured the imagination of Evelyn Waugh and Cyril Connolly. Unusually, she absolves Brian Howard from all his failings and gives a particularly comic description of one party that turned into a rough-house for naughty boys. As for herself, she hints about slipping out of windows at dawn for propriety’s sake, but mostly withdraws into abstractions about acute desolation, disconnection, misconceptions, and the like. When war finally broke out, she spent some six years in the United States, then one year in Mexico, out of which came A Visit to Don Ottavio, her first book—all of which period she covers in perhaps a hundred words. Reticence itself.

The writing of Don Ottavio seems to have involved make-or-break struggle with herself and her typewriter. She settled in Italy, mostly in Rome among expatriate Americans, with visits to Paris and to French friends in Provence. Her half-sister Jacko divorced and ran out of money—the Nazis had beheaded her former husband. People with walk-on parts now included Allanah Harper, Esther Murphy, Martha Gellhorn, Jane Bowles, Constantine Fitzgibbon and his wife Theodora. Also in this milieu were Milton and Evelyn Gendel, both Americans, and one day the latter pronounced “the three fatal words” (not too enigmatic for once), and came to live with Sybille Bedford, walking out of her marriage as lightly as Sybille’s own mother once had done.

Quite what this relationship and others similar really meant remains veiled. This book is far removed from the confessional mode. It seems unfair, though, that someone so single-minded in ambition should insistently accuse herself of “hedonism, sloth, and doubt.” In reality, she has made the best of her father’s aristocratic nature and her mother’s bohemianism. Even in a misty landscape, the life-course stands out for its achievement.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 9, on page 76
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